To awaken and create divinities one needs to offer them their favorite sound, also called libation. Schneider’s surprising journey into ancestral rites and myths continue, where sound is increasingly the protagonist.
My translation from the Italian edition of “La Musica Primitiva” by Marius Schneider, Adelphi Spa publisher, Milano, 1992:
Cosmic Position of the Singing Magician
The creator, his rival, the civilizing hero, and his adversary use spirits to maintain relations with humankind. Typically these beings are the souls of the dead and enter the wizard’s hearing or body, representing the last rank in the hierarchy of beings of a dual nature. In his way of speaking, singing, or dressing, he often reveals a distinctly hermaphroditic character. His secret consists of the art of knowing how to imitate the gods. Almost all rites try to achieve, through their chants, acts of analogy with the music of creation. Both the evocative force, capable of bringing back spring, rain, and health, and the construction of the sound scale between heaven and earth emanate from the sound sacrifice. The seat of this magician’s ability “to hear the sacrifice” lies in his voice or in a magical implement which is ultimately always a musical instrument or symbol of sound. With his moist and luminous words, the singer shakes the gods, arouses their action, and prolongs their sound. But since that “sound arrow” heads towards the land of the dead, a direct relationship with the spirits is indispensable. To achieve this, the Australian magician allows himself to be put to death and thrown into a well for four days. On the fifth day, he is released; he is given the bone of a dead man who is used for spells and is taught the necessary songs. The young Siberian shaman visits the land of the dead to “strengthen his voice and throat”. He is then led to an immense tree populated by human souls who deliver him three branches and drums. Often the future doctor-singer is forced to undergo a very difficult operation. Then the spirits open his belly, remove his entrails and introduce strings and crystals that arrive hissing into his body. During the long weeks he spends in solitude, he engages in the knowledge of the internal music of objects. Such a penetration into the cosmic life essence cannot be realized only thanks to a feeling of solidarity with objects and a complete identification of man with nature using sound. An interpenetration must occur between the magician and his object, which annuls the frontiers between the subject and the object and confers on the magician the faculty of reproducing with “the tuned voice” the sounds which normally belong only to the things which he imitates.
Whether or not you become a singing magician is not a matter of choice. An imperious voice in the candidate’s soul dictates his fate to him. An Iakuto magician relates that, at the age of twenty, he fell ill and suddenly heard the voices of all objects, voices that other men could not perceive. He suffered terribly until he picked up a drum and began to sing and play. Then the spirits were able to enter his body. According to the Wintuns (America), the spirits (the sounds-substance) pierce the shaman’s ears. But for them to go in one ear, through the head, and out the opposite ear, he must sing continuously. Even great civilizations know this acoustic way, allowing them to acquire esoteric knowledge. According to the Atharvaveda, the yogi makes his ascent to Brahmã in ten stages. The first sounds like “cini”, and conforms to the body; the second makes “cinini” heard and twists the body. The third sound, born of a bell, tired. The fourth stage, similar to the sound of a shell, makes the head shake. Then a string vibrates, which excites the palate, which induces the yogi to clap his hands and drink “the veiled immortal truth.” The seventh stage is a flute sound that reveals new knowledge. In the eighth and ninth stages, a drum beat expresses the Holy Word and makes the yogi invisible, who, on the tenth sound, with a clap of thunder, becomes Brahmā.
The Magician’s Song
A singing magician is, therefore, more than an ordinary man. Being a cosmic resonator, the more his ability to hear and resonate increases, the more his power radiates. He can reproduce, at least in part, the original language of the gods. Often he would like to be like the gods, which, on the other hand, is not surprising, as he can identify with all beings that he feels able to imitate. The most frequent metamorphosis is the transformation into an animal. In ancient times, the rituals of Egypt and India tried to imitate the voice of the zoomorphic gods with the utmost realism. Hymns to Indra were sung in the voice of a vulture or a bull; for Soma, the buzzing of bees was imitated. During the three libations, the Vedic priests in the morning recited in a chest voice resembling the roar of a tiger; at noon, they sang in a throaty voice, similar to the cry of a goose; in the evening, with the head voice, which recalled the cry of the peacock. The Duala (Africa) compares the head voice to the eagle, the chest voice to the tiger, and the belly voice to the ox. But, in these customs, the difference between magic and religion already becomes perceptible. The magician tries to identify himself with his god or spirit to possess him. Religion calls or awakens its god and offers him acoustic food as a song of praise; however, he does not try to hinder their freedom. The imitation of the cries and movements of the gods to achieve transubstantiation through sound is already found among the totemic tribes. The imitation of sound essences constitutes the only form of sacrifice for them. It is known that, in those civilizations, every object and every being was created by the voice of a totem god. When those gods, exhausted with work, retired, they entrusted each created thing to a given man, making him responsible for preserving and multiplying that species. To this end, they taught him the sound sacrifice, the exact imitation of the sounds-substance using shouts and songs. Any individual who can imitate the noise of the rain or the hiss of the serpent will be a rain or a serpent, capable of reviving the rain or the serpent at the right moment.
The sacrifice of the magician who fasts offers his breath of life singing, goes into ecstasy, and, due to starvation, finally falls to the ground realizing transubstantiation with sound is a very widespread phenomenon. Yet its existence in totemic cultures may appear strange since these civilizations do not know material sacrifices. On the other hand, A.W. Howitt has repeatedly stressed that in Australian rites, shouts form the central part of the ceremonies; it is in the exclusively acoustic sacrifice that the particularly ancient character of these civilizations is manifested. Using the “singing voice,” the magician thus succeeds in awakening the gods and spirits that animate the objects and in identifying himself with them. Once the substances of the evoked spirits have penetrated his body, the magician tries, by making them speak through his mouth, to impose his will on them by inserting the substance scream into a song which, using words, impresses but at that forces the desired direction. Often he begins with a murmur, gesturing with his hands to locate the sound body of the spirit he has seen. Having achieved mental clarity, he gradually raises his voice. When contact is established, a rustle or hiss betrays the spirit’s arrival. The presence of this being almost always manifests itself with auditory sensations, which, subsequently, can sometimes be accompanied by visual impressions.
Since each spirit is a particular melody, the timbre of his voice and the characteristic motif of his song will be the main elements of the composition, in which the magician will imprison the spirit. In other cases, the ceremony begins with a cry that frightens the spirits. Then the magician sings their names, colors, habitats, and qualities. When dealing with an unknown spirit, he uses words of flattery or invective to force him to introduce himself and confess his name or song. Instead of “riding” the wizard’s voice, the spirit can intrude through a magical instrument. The Cherokee doctor holds a snake’s tooth in his right hand, and it is supposed that, while he sings, the snake spirit enters the tooth, which is seen to vibrate. When the song ends, the doctor brings the tooth to his mouth, blows on it, and hums, using it to draw furrows on the patient’s chest. The Pangwe (Africa) “suck” the sound-substance of the spirit of an object “as a spider sucks the blood of its victim”; then they enclose it in their mouths and “make it dance in the net of a song” performed with clenched teeth. Finally, when it’s exhausted, they spit it out. Drawing the line between demigods and spirits is not easy. In principle, the latter are the souls of dead people who are more or less still remembered. Depending on their importance or the time elapsed since their death, they live in clouds or ancient materials (stones, wood, water). Since they can move, they do not constitute the sonic essence of the objects that serve them as support, but they can significantly influence the beings who offer them hospitality. The spirits who constitute the sound substance of those objects form the last degree of semi-divine beings engaged in the creation and maintenance of the material world. Practical Magic is especially aimed at them, as they are more easily accessible than the gods. Song lyrics often refer to a simple repetition of the spirit’s name. The arguments and rants between the sorcerer and his opponent are probably products of low magic.
For the rite to be effective, each name, or each phrase, must be pronounced in one breath. If the text contains several sentences, a drum, a rattle, or a bell must be played continuously to cover the singer’s silence. It is necessary that “the sacrifice be continuous”; otherwise, an evil spirit would not fail to make the rite fail by insinuating itself into the silences. “He would tear the net” (Duala). A wide range of dynamic resources is also needed. Some spirits wish to be approached gently, and others prefer to be spoken to in a frank and strong tone. A magic song is always an accumulation of forces that increase more and more, starting from the initial cry. Its potential depends on the magician’s ability, who must know how to stop “before the song breaks out”.
The Duala consider certain vocal interjections as outlets. But even without getting close to that tipping point, just finishing a song always comes with some precautionary measures. One chant is “a cart going down a slope” or “an animal in the grip of anger” (Duala). The men emit fierce cries, while the women let out high-pitched shrieks to warn people that the song is about to end. Everyone then runs away with cries that prevent the freed spirits from pouncing on the people of whom they have been “prisoners in the song”. In the Marquesas Islands, the lock is formed by a very long sound, broken at the end by a sharp blow of the diaphragm when the mouth is closed. “You tie a knot as if you were closing a sack”.
The whirling dervishes end their songs with a loud exclamation of the syllable HŪ, which means He (God). A good wizard must be a good singer. This does not mean he must have a beautiful voice: he must be a resonator drained of sacrifice, capable of reproducing all the sounds of nature. When his skin, dry as the parchment of a drum, touches his bones, he has become a pure offering to the gods, who in turn offer themselves to him by entering his body. It suffices that he leaves his mouth wide open and behaves like the god evoked for him to penetrate him, impress him with his dance movements, and sing through his mouth. Now, if the body of the dancing magician is loaded with bells or packets of half-shells of dried fruit or pieces of metal, this “man-rattles” (Schaeffner) is nothing more than a musical instrument of the god who has invaded him. Following the example of the gods, he became a living corpse. Constituting the heart of the sound sacrifice, he places himself in the mystical center of the universe. It resembles the talking tree or cult tree, whose branches hold all sorts of offerings and some musical instruments which are supposed to hold human souls. In contrast to the “instruments” of the purely acoustic world, these instruments are no longer mere symbols of divine songs but concrete images of the gods since the ancestors conceived the instruments in the image of the world’s lords.
Each instrument of this type is a resonance cave that produces luminous music for those who know how to listen to it. The “crow drum” of the Tsimshian (America) emits a dazzling light. The inhabitants of the island of Malekula speak of an immense and radiant shell that floats on the sea. According to Hindu tradition, certain stupa bells simultaneously emit harmonious sound and light. This idea could also be linked to the shiny appearance of the metal. A Sumerian inscription from the third millennium mentions a cymbal or offering cup which “shines like the day”.
Musical Instruments are Deities born of Sacrifice
We have seen how the ancestors used, above all, “ancient materials” to build musical instruments. In India, Dharmakāra emits all sorts of instruments from the scalp’s pores and the hands’ palms. When the great Manitou gave his drum to the Chippewa’s maternal ancestor, he demanded the sacrifice of two men in exchange for a new instrument. Similarly, Huang-ti did not hesitate to kill K’uei, the musician, and to use his victim’s skin to build a drum. However, when his skin had dried well, K’uei became even more powerful; for now, his voice spoke through his sacrificed skin. Every resonant body deriving from an “ancient matter” or the sacrifice of a god, an ancestor, a man, or an animal is a reservoir of supernatural forces whose forms, sometimes anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, reproduce the image of beings sacrificing themselves. Therefore men, making their tools, imitated the work of the gods. The Incas scalped their victims and made dummies out of them, which they inflated to beat their bellies. In Tibet, the lama blows into a human femur and transforms into a trumpet.